“Often I have found a portrait superior in real instruction to half a dozen written ‘biographies’, as biographies are written; - or rather, let me say, I have found that the portrait was a small lighted candle by which the biographies could be for the first time be read, and by some human interpretation be made of them…” - Thomas Carlyle, a founder of the National Portrait Gallery in London 

The world's first portrait gallery was founded in 1856 by several prominent patrons (Earl Philip Henry Stanhope and the future Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli among them) in order to perpetuate images of the noteworthy British people from history. The collection was planned to include not only oil paintings but also miniatures, sketches, busts and photographs. Initially, the core exhibition was gathered from the founders’ private collections and gifts from their friends who appreciated the initiative. 

The famous "Chandos" portrait of Shakespeare, which is said to be the only portrait of the great playwright drawn from life, became the very first exhibit. The gallery was managed by a charitable trust established for the purpose and it included a variety of well known politicians, writers and painters. 

The portraits were organized in the gallery according to the age in which they lived, beginning with the Tudor age. The arrangement of the collection on the walls was related to the significance of the sitter, not the artist, because the gallery was originally designed as a museum dedicated to British history, not portraiture as a medium. 

The acquisition of the portraits of people who had died less than 10 years ago was prohibited since the gallery foundation, in order to eliminate bias over the inclusion of certain portraits. The founders were concerned with making an objective selection of paintings, therefore they specially stated that the collection should include portraits of those who had made "big mistakes and errors” in order that they serve as an illustration of "the history of civil society, religion and literature". This principle ensured that portraits of figures from the past could not be shuffled, like a deck of cards to suit the current political situation.

Today the National Portrait Gallery presents about two thousand portraits of significant historical figures and the most popular characters of our time. The importance of the museum for modern Britain is emphasized by the fact that since 2012 the gallery was placed under the official patronage of the Duchess of Cambridge, Kate Middleton.


In 2016, the National Portrait Gallery in London and the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow celebrate 160 years since the foundation of each gallery by exchanging a significant loan of the best works from their permanent collections.

Visitors to the National Portrait Gallery in London had a unique chance to see 26 of the best portraits by Repin, Serov, Ge and other Russian artists in the Russia and the Arts: The Age of Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky, which ran from 17 March until 26 June 2016.  The exhibition included celebrated portraits of key figures from a golden age of the arts in Russia – critics and writers (with three outstanding portraits of Ivan Turgenev, Fedor Dostoevsky and Leo Tolstoy), actors and playwrights, composers and musicians, poets and patrons. It also showed how Russian art developed a new self-confidence, with penetrating early Realism later complemented by the brighter hues of Russian Impressionism and the bold, faceted forms of Cubism.